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In This Place

O Tannenbaum

Liz Lerner

My wife Kathy is Jewish, and yet with few exceptions we have had a Christmas tree every year. Well, not explicitly a “Christmas” tree; rather, a Tannenbaum. The word “Tannenbaum” is German for a fir tree, and “O Tannenbaum!” was originally a German folk song, whose lyrics lacked any specific reference to the Christ Child. Rather, it used the evergreen fir tree as a symbol for faithfulness and endurance. Only in the late 19th century was it given new lyrics and thus became the popular holiday carol. “O Christmas Tree.”

At any rate, Kathy feels no dissonance between decorating a Christmas tree and lighting her Hanukah Minora. Like many non-Christians she values the tree not primarily as a symbol, but as a frame, or scaffolding, for the decorations we hang upon it, which, as she puts it, “contain such great stories.” For instance, when we first got together, we had no ornaments of our own. When a friend of hers from Boston found this out, he sent us an ornament every December for many years. We also added several Cape Cod ornaments painted on scallop shells by the late Wellfleet artist David Rose.

Our tree is not so much secular as ecumenical. There are traditional Christmas red-and-white stockings hanging side by side with blue-and-white stockings patterned with Stars of David. A miniature angel shares a branch with a gold-plated hamsa, which is a palm-shaped amulet widely regarded as a sign of protection throughout the Middle East.

After my father died, my mother bought one of those artificial, pre-decorated Christmas trees and gave us leave to plunder their old Christmas ornaments. It contained several “White House” ornaments that she bought from one of the holiday catalogues, but which she always maintained had been sent to her personally by Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

But the most remarkable items were several boxes of large, fragile, multi-colored glass balls, still in their original cardboard boxes, that my parents must have bought when they first began celebrating Christmas together in the early 1940s. My guess is that they bought them during the War, for printed on the covers of the boxes is a tall, thin Uncle Sam shaking hands with Santa Claus. The boxes were labeled: ONE DOZEN SHINY BRIGHT – REGISTERED – AMERICAN MADE- GLASS CHRISTMAS TREE ORNAMENTS.

The ornaments were made by the K&W Glass Works, Inc. of North Bergen, N.J., the same county I was born in. Suddenly, I was a child of six again, standing amazed before the fragile beauty of the magic balls and the sweet scent of balsam that held the promise of gifts that would appear beneath its branches on Christmas morn.

One of the things that makes Christmas ornaments special is that they are only on display for a couple of weeks, then packed away and left unseen and largely unremembered and almost forgotten until the following December. So that each year the unearthing of them — from a basement, an attic, a garage, or storage shed — becomes a ritual, an act of remembrance, not just of the ornaments themselves, but of one’s own history and connection with those, present and absent, who touched our lives. And while each set of ornaments is unique and deeply personal, they each represent a bond with the multitudes of friends and strangers, making their own annual rediscovery of the past and celebration of the present: “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, how lovely are thy branches…”